Twitter  "Algorithms have consequences." Zeynep Tufekci on Ferguson and net neutrality:  
Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Want to correct misinformation? Try doing it with a graphic

A new study finds that a correction that does its work in visual form is more likely to be accepted.

At this point, we pretty much take for granted the power of graphics to help journalists explain — stories, concepts, context. What we pay less attention to is graphics’ power to persuade. But that could (and, maybe, should) be changing. A new paper (pdf) on motivated reasoning and political misperception — the latest from political science professors Brendan Nyhan, of Dartmouth, and Jason Reifler, of Georgia State — suggests that graphics can also provide a powerful, and perhaps essential, way of counteracting misinformation. In the political world, in particular — but presumably in the broader sphere, as well.

The paper (full title: “Opening the Political Mind? The effects of self-affirmation and graphical information on factual misperceptions”) shares findings from three experiments that asked participants to assess sets of controversial data: on the U.S. troop-level surge in Iraq in 2007, the jobs market under the Obama administration, and global temperature change. From those, it draws two big conclusions about the psychology of misinformation: First, that external affirmations of “self-worth” — essentially, the buttressing of people’s sense of their own values and worldviews — can actually reduce misperceptions among the people who are most likely to resist information that runs counter to their already-held beliefs; and, second, that graphical presentation of corrections (and of controversial information in general) can be more powerful than their textual counterparts in terms of convincing people to amend their misperceptions.

Though the first finding is, wow, fascinating — “you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and, doggone it, global warming is scientific fact” — it’s the second that holds the most obvious and immediate implications for journalism. We know it intuitively: Graphics, with their stark, efficient presentation of ostensibly authorless information, are powerful vehicles of facts. And they can be powerful cleansers to the misunderstandings that pollute the (political) atmosphere. Words invite interpretation; graphics invite consumption. Graphics’ frankness — and, with it, their raw persuasive power — suggest, as Nyhan and Reifler put it, “the exciting possibility that graphical corrections can reduce misperceptions more effectively than text.”

For journalism, that should also suggest that infographics deserve even more prominent placement in news narratives — particularly when those narratives involve information that is, for whatever reason, controversial. Here’s a way — finally, maybe! — to combat the persistent falsehoods that slant, ever so slightly, the entire direction of our discourse, political and otherwise. The stubbornness of misperception is, alas, an evergreen story, and one that’s particularly frustrating to journalists, who would prefer to take for granted that the truths they tell will be believed. It’s nice to think that something as relatively simple a bar graph or a pie chart — or, for that matter, something as relatively complex as a detailed interactive graphic — could help turn the tide back toward truth.

While the paper’s findings overall, Nyhan and Reifer write, still “underscore the challenges faced by those who hope to reduce misperceptions among the public,” their glass-half-full conclusion — “that journalists writing stories about changes or trends in a measurable quantity where misperceptions are likely should consider including graphs in their stories” — is good news. And it suggests the good that can come if journalists think about infographics less as ancillary explainers, and more as narrative devices that are integral to stories’ impact.

Image by Keith Ramsey used under a Creative Commons license.

What to read next
Ken Doctor    Aug. 13, 2014
If newspapers are going to have to survive on their own, the first numbers aren’t encouraging. In southern California, we could see big movement fast.
  • Anonymous

    absolutely agree, as a reader and with less info than i am reading to gather, clarity and grasp are so important. There is a bombardment of info on senses, if support of visual aids are used , i am so much better equipped and empowered thereby. I will come back to that site/blog repeatedly as lucidity is what appeals to a reader. Short time, crisp info and satisfaction  of reading.please put more graphics to augment info.

  • Jeff Posey

    Those of us who string words together for a living tend to think that as long as we communicate clearly using words, we’ve done all we can. But I’ve come to find that as limiting. What we really do is synthesize information (facts and opinion) and convey the results with clarity. Infographics can often do that better than mere words.

    I attended a class on infographics taught by Edward Tufte, who mentioned that nearly all those on the New York Times infographics staff were reporters, not graphic artists. The critical skill is the synthesis of information.

    For the sake of communications efficiency, good infographics are essential tools.

  • Matthew Hurst

    Interesting study, and on top of using these graphics to counteract misinformation, they’re effective at making any complex subject easier to understand. 

    However one drawback is that the stats/information conveyed in a graphics can still be highly selective, so graphics can also be used to effectively convey misinformation.  For instance, many politicians use graphs which feature skewed stats to make their point, which could aid in the spread of misinfo as well; while numbers don’t lie, but sometimes people can use them to obfuscate the truth.

  • Ravenouspixel has plenty of examples of how information graphics can be done poorly. It’s still going to be up to the viewer/reader to scrutinize what they’vebeen presented, whether its textual or graphical.

  • Nadine Lumley

    You no longer have reporters, you have repeaters.



    The new game began in Canada on Aug. 27, 1980.  “Black Wednesday”, as it became known, was the
    day newspaper corporations across the country colluded to swap properties and
    kill competition. The Ottawa Journal and the Winnipeg Tribune folded, and
    Vancouver Province’s owner, Southam, bought the Vancouver Sun. The two had been
    in bed together since 1950s via a press-and-profit-sharing agreement at Pacific
    Press that killed the third paper and defended against upstarts.


    Suddenly competition for readers was no longer necessary;
    these publicly traded corporations now focused on advertiser-pleasing copy as
    the technique for pulling more ads.


    At least Postmedia has an understandable reason for changing
    standards: they’re legally obligated to maximize profits. But the fact that the
    commercial-free public broadcaster also ignores the public good suggests that
    there is a new definition of journalism.